The Batasang Pambansa is an institution where the laws of the land are made and upheld in the name of freedom and independence. On a fateful afternoon – June 4, 2010 – it became a Pantheon of Shame, where the members of the House were allowed to go through “graduation rites” without passing the Freedom of Information Bill.
What makes it all sickening is that the House of Representatives is responsible for screwing the people out of freedom. An essential freedom: the right to know. What makes it even more appalling is that they didn’t do this out of a higher set of principles, but something much more base and banal: low drama, the fixation with parliamentary procedure, the lack of discipline, and simply not being there when a landmark piece of legislation is supposed to be ratified, for reasons that are best left to speculation.
In a system where almost every transaction with the Government is done under a sort of omerta, the Freedom of Information Bill is not just an accessory: it is essential. It is the enabling law that guarantees the Constitutional provision, gives it teeth. It does away with the code of silence that there is in every single level of Government. It does away with see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil: something so pervasive in the day-to-day affairs of Government.
Forget what kind of freedom is assured by FOI. Forget the willy-nilly and the nitty-gritty of what it contains, for now. In this supposedly free and independent nation that prides itself on having “the freest press in Asia” – or merely having guarantees to free speech that none of our Asian neighbors have – our august and honorable Representatives can, on a whim, deny us freedom. The fact that they did not attend the last session doesn’t just make them absentee legislators; that the FOI was not ratified for the lack of a quorum makes those august and honorable Representatives tyrants.
Tyrants: the kind who become real and possible because there is no freedom to access information. Tyrants who put their personal interests first above that of the people. Tyrants who only pass laws if it benefits them first. Tyrants who survive because they deny the people the right to know.
If there is a legacy of sloth and laziness in the House of Representatives, I believe that is forgivable. Maybe we can forgive our Representatives for the impunity that comes with being too lazy to negotiate through traffic, preferring instead to use sirens to breeze through traffic-clogged lanes. Maybe we can forgive our Representatives for the impunity that comes with being too lazy to enter the hallowed halls of Congress to do their jobs; their self-ascribed notion of it being sleeping and rubbing elbows with the high and mighty. Yet if this legacy of sloth and laziness gave way to the higher legacy of tyranny – if that sin of omission comes with the cost of denying the people free access to information – then it is a sin that cannot be forgiven, and damned if it is forgotten.
Was it because they had no more stake in it for losing their own elections? Was it because they had no more interest in it because there are other things to attend to? Was it because they’re not authentic supporters of transparent Government and would rather rack this bill up among their “achievements,” and yet lack the intestinal fortitude to go to the House on the last day of session and defend it? Was it because of a script? Was it because FOI was detrimental to their interests?
Free and open Government transactions and the access to records and data is the promise and the premise of clean, honest governance. When cloaked in a shroud of secrecy, and when allowed to operate under a conspiracy of silence, no Government can ever claim to be transparent, open, and clean. When the very system of governance remains closed to the public, when the public is deliberately kept blind from the system that they are supposed to watch, then that system is anything but free.
It is in the failure to pass the FOI that the House of Representatives, led by none other than Rep. Prospero Nograles, should be shamed for leaving, for the moment, a legacy of tyranny. The FOI was not passed by the House of Representatives for the lack of quorum: that is something that should be etched in the edifice of the Pantheon of Shame made by this institution through the years. No longer a House, but a monument to impunity and an edifice to ignominy.
A Pantheon of Shame, built upon the pillars of laziness, graft, corruption, and incompetence. A Pantheon of Shame where the names of the absentee Representatives are etched on the walls, whose legacy is the burial of the FOI for no other reason than a lack of quorum. A Pantheon of Shame where the names of the members are not preceded by the title “Honorable,” but by what they are: tyrants.
That it was not made possible by “Congressmen.” Or “Representatives.” Or “solons,” for that matter: that any legacy of tyranny is only made possible by tyrants. Perhaps the greatest episode of shame for these tyrants is that one day, the Freedom of Information Bill will be passed through no fault, and through no act, of their own. That those who will pass, enact, and live by the FOI shall bask in the glory of being responsible for assuring the people of an essential freedom.
For those in the Pantheon of Shame, they shall forever be remembered for denying the people of it.